Extend Freedom of Information to Ontario Hospitals

Newspaper group says all organizations primarily funded by government should be transparent and accountable

As long as Ontario hospitals remain immune from transparency obligations that other public institutions are subject to, taxpayers will remain in the dark about potential waste and mismanagement in health care delivery, Anne Kothawala, President and CEO of the Canadian Newspaper Association warned today.

“The Liberals brought Ontario Hydro and Ontario Power Generation back into the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, and that reinforced accountability in energy,” Ms. Kothawala said. “They’ve brought universities under the Act, without causing a revolution. It’s about time hospitals, that will eat up $13.35 billion in operating funding this fiscal year, are subject to the same transparency rules that prevail in most other areas of the public and private sectors, so they can be held to account by citizens and journalists investigating on their behalf,” she said.

Speaking at a special conference sponsored by the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s Office during “Right to Know Week,” Ms. Kothawala noted that Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has been calling on the government to bring all organizations that are primarily funded by government dollars under freedom of information for several years.

Ms. Kothawala noted that the results of the CNA’s second National Freedom of Information Audit, released in newspapers across Canada on Sept. 23, show that Ontario hospitals will only release the bare minimum of information required by law when journalists make requests. In the audit exercise, journalists across Canada asked for the amounts of and reasons for awarding bonus payments to hospital executives. In most cases, Ontario hospitals refused to comply with these requests. Similar requests in some other parts of Canada were not refused.

Overall, the results of the audit indicate that governments continue to be unacceptably lax in fulfilling legislative obligations to uphold freedom of information laws. As a result, Canadians are likely to face unreasonable barriers in obtaining basic, uncontroversial information that should be readily available.

Meanwhile, a separate study of British Columbia’s track record in responding to freedom of information requests from the public raises serious concerns and suggests urgent remedial measures are required.

The study, co-sponsored by the CNA and the province’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), was released in Vancouver as part of “Right to Know Week,” a nation-wide initiative of Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial information commissioners to build public awareness of this essential democratic right.

The FIPA study found that complaints about the province’s freedom of information system are soaring, even as usage of the Freedom of Information Act declined.

“Requests for information are being abandoned by B.C. citizens at an alarming rate, out of frustration with delays and fees,” Ms.Kothawala said. “This is a matter of concern to the newspaper industry, as freedom of information is not only a right of all citizens, it is also one of the most important tools used by journalists to hold governments to account,” she said.

The CNA’s 2006 National Freedom of Information Audit is available at www.cna-acj.ca. The full FIPA study is available on the web at http://fipa.bc.ca.